MOSCOW•• • Russia is quietly boosting economic support for North Korea to try to stymie any US-led push to oust Mr Kim Jong Un as Moscow fears his fall would sap its regional clout and allow US troops to deploy on Russia's eastern border.
Though Moscow wants to try and improve battered US-Russia relations in the increasingly slim hope of relief from Western sanctions over Ukraine, it remains strongly opposed to what it sees as Washington's meddling in other countries' affairs.
Russia is already angry about a build-up of US-led Nato forces on its western borders in Europe and does not want any replication on its Asian flank.
Yet while Russia has an interest in protecting North Korea, which started life as a Soviet satellite state, it is not giving Pyongyang a free pass: it backed tougher United Nations sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear tests last month.
But Moscow is also playing a fraught double game, by quietly offering North Korea a slender lifeline to help insulate it from US-led efforts to isolate it economically.
A Russian company began routing North Korean Internet traffic this month, giving Pyongyang a second connection with the outside world besides China. Bilateral trade more than doubled to US$31.4 million (S$43 million) in the first quarter this year, due mainly to what Moscow said was higher oil product exports.
At least eight North Korean ships that left Russia with fuel cargoes this year have returned home despite officially declaring other destinations, a ploy that US officials say is often used to undermine sanctions against Pyongyang.
And Russia, which shares a short land border with North Korea, has also resisted US-led efforts to repatriate tens of thousands of North Korean workers whose remittances help keep the country's hard line leadership afloat. Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin put the figure at 40,000 during an energy forum.
"The Kremlin really believes the North Korean leadership should get additional assurances and confidence that the United States is not in the regime change business," Dr Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Reuters.
"The prospect of regime change is a serious concern. The Kremlin understands that (US President Donald) Trump is unpredictable. They felt more secure with Barack Obama that he would not take any action that would explode the situation, but with Trump they don't know."
Mr Trump, who mocks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a "rocket man" on a suicide mission, told the UN General Assembly last month he would "totally destroy" the country if necessary.
If the US were to remove Mr Kim by force, said Dr Kortunov, Russia could face a refugee and humanitarian crisis on its border, while the weapons and technology Pyongyang is developing could fall into even more dangerous non-state hands.
So despite Russia giving lukewarm backing to tighter sanctions on Pyongyang, Mr Putin wants to help its economy grow and is advocating bringing it into joint projects with other countries in the region. "We need to gradually integrate North Korea into regional cooperation," Mr Putin told the Vladivostok summit last month.